Teenie Harris archive yields another fine show
Charles A. "Little Teenie" Harris, the curator of "Documenting Our Past: The Teenie Harris Archive Project, Part Three," reviewing his father's images.
Small boy in police officer's uniform with Prince "Big Blue" Bruce on beat outside Alpern's clothing store with beauty parlor next door, c. 1952.
The Crawford Grill, Hill District being razed.
Exterior view of Crystal Barber Shop and Billiard Parlor being razed, Wylie Avenue, Hill District, c. 1958-1961
Charles A "Little Teenie" Harris thinks his father's favorite image in the show would be that of his second wife, Elsa Lee Elliott Harris, sitting on a grassy hill with the Cathedral of Learning behind her, circa 1940-50.
Photo of Charles A. "Little Teenie" Harris on his wedding day.
Group portrait of women and men at Crawford Grill No. 2.
Group portrait of Senator John F. Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy, and congressman Thomas E. Morgan, October 1959.
Teddy Horne, and his daughter Lena Horne wearing sequined strapless dress, standing in Stanley Theatre, c. 1944.
Portrait of Beatrice Scott (Harris).
Portrait of waitress at Crawford Grill No. 1, with Hughey Smith seated on bar stool on left, c. 1946-1947.
Three men standing outside of the Crawford Grill No. 1.
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Charles "Teenie" Harris was a much-lauded photographer. But the fatherly advice his eldest son remembers involved how to wax a car:
"He'd tell me, 'When you're finished, if a fly lands on the hood it better slip off,' " Charles A. "Little Teenie" Harris said with a soft, good-natured laugh.
"He loved cars, and he wanted his cars to shine all the time. I ended up being the guy waxing the car," said Harris by telephone recently from his home in Silver Spring, Md.
"He liked to joke, kid with people," he explained. "He told me once that the Pirates were the strongest baseball team and I said 'But Dad, they're in last place.' And he said 'They're on the bottom holding the rest of them up.' "
Harris is guest curator of "Documenting Our Past: The Teenie Harris Archive Project, Part Three," the third in a series of exhibitions at Carnegie Museum of Art. Opening Saturday, it displays portions of Harris' lifework and invites visitors to help identify the persons and places photographed.
As a principal photographer for the national black newspaper the Pittsburgh Courier, Harris captured politicians, athletes, celebrities and news events between 1936 and 1975. But more remarkable are countless images of everyday activities in the Hill District and other local communities that form a vast and irreplaceable record of 20th-century African-American life.
The Carnegie purchased Harris' archives in 2001, three years after his death. The archives comprise approximately 80,000 photographic negatives, most untitled and undated.
With National Endowment for the Humanities support, archivist Kerin Shellenbarger and a staff of five have been cataloging and digitizing the Teenie Harris Archive since 2003. Almost 60,000 images have been scanned to date and most may be accessed on the museum's Web site, www.cmoa.org/teenie/info.asp.
A tribute to the photographer drew 450 friends and fans to the museum on June 11, 1998. Sadly, he was unable to attend, having been hospitalized earlier in the week. He died early in the morning of June 12, of an apparent stroke, three weeks short of his 90th birthday.
"It was like he held on [for the tribute]," Harris said. "The only disappointment is that he couldn't see it for himself, because he worked so hard."
This exhibition comprises 184 images, some of which haven't been shown before, separated into 10 themes: landmarks, celebrities, children, family, occupations, politics, protests, social, sports and weddings and religious events.
Harris said his father, who never had formal training, "just seems to have had a knack for photography" and was modest about his talents. Being on call for the Courier, he never left the house without his camera. Pittsburgh was a stop between New York and Chicago for politicians and his father caught them all, from the Kennedys to Eleanor Roosevelt.
"Other photographers always showed her with some dignitary," his son said of Roosevelt. "He took pictures of her with children."
Celebrities, especially black entertainers and athletes, figure prominently, too. Harris played professional basketball and baseball, and founded the original Pittsburgh Crawfords with Bill Harris (no relation), Harris says. Roberto Clemente was a favorite subject, as was Lena Horne, and one of Harris' best memories is of being taken on his 13th or 14th birthday to see her perform at the Stanley Theatre.
As exhibition curator, Harris stirs a little controversy by including pre-urban redevelopment pictures of such Hill institutions as the Crawford Grill and the Crystal Barber Shop alongside pictures of them being razed. The metaphor for the destruction of community that accompanied the physical destruction of buildings is hard to miss, and a point well made.
Harris thinks his father's favorite image in the show would be that of his second wife, Elsa, sitting on a grassy hill with the Cathedral of Learning in the distance behind her.
Among discoveries that surprised him was a photograph of policeman Prince "Big Blue" Bruce. "There had been a huge picture of him in a previous exhibition, but in this one he's talking to a little boy dressed up like a policeman," he said.
Another surprise was a youthful portrait of his son's wife, Beatrice, that Harris was previously unaware of. "She says it's the best picture of her ever taken."
Its inclusion in the exhibition exemplifies the personal insight, and emotion, that informed Harris' decision making, and makes this edition of the Archive Project more intimate than the first two.
As the collection has received national exposure, Harris' photographs have been widely exhibited. In addition to the Carnegie series, a major 2001 exhibition at Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg, highlighted the aesthetic choices he made, in subject matter, composition and lighting.
Although Harris, a retired U.S. Treasury Department supervisor, has been involved with the museum off and on for a decade, choosing images for the show was an enormous task.
"It even got to be tedious at some point, but it was still a joy. I guess it was a labor of love."
"Celebrate the Photography of Teenie Harris," a free program, will be held at 6 p.m. July 23 in Carnegie Music Hall. Laurence Glasco, University of Pittsburgh history professor, will present an illustrated lecture on Harris' life and subjects. Young participants in the "One Shot Tennie Harris Photo Contest" will share their experiences. A reception will follow.
The Archive Project and Photo Contest shows continue through Nov. 1. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mon.-Sat., noon to 5 p.m. Sun. and until 8 p.m. Thurs.. Admission is $15; seniors $12; students and ages 3-18, $11; active military personnel and up to four guests, 50 percent off; members and under 3 years old, free. Information: 412-622-3131 or www.cmoa.org.
First Published July 15, 2009 12:00 am